When my Mom was sick in the hospital, I found it strangely easy to be with her in her pain. She would have a problem that required a nurse, and they would often take a while. Perhaps they didn’t feel her problem was an emergency. Perhaps she was last on the list because she was on state-run health insurance. It didn’t matter. She was having a problem and the nurses weren’t coming and she was getting anxious. Then her tension from her anxiety was causing her even more pain.
I realized something at that time. She was modeling after me in those moments of uncertainty. When I was anxious along with her, she would become more anxious. She needed someone to show her what to do. So I intentionally kept my expression calm. I spoke in soothing tones. She calmed down. Freaking out wasn’t going to make the nurse come faster, but it sure would make the situation worse. She felt better because of my actions, even though I couldn’t fix the leaking chest tube or figure out how to make the morphine drip work properly. The moment when I intentionally chose to remain calm was healing for her and for me. It taught me that our reactions to events are often more problematic than the events themselves.
I once had a summer job where I worked at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I drove in every day from a tiny town in northern Virginia. It was maybe only 20 miles away but because of DC traffic it was an hour and a half coming home. One day I was sitting in my car on the way home, stuck in the usual traffic jam. I wasn’t tired or hungry, just bored. I then looked at my watch. It said that it was 6:30 pm. Suddenly I felt tired and hungry. I hadn’t felt that way just a moment before.
I realized something, and it is the same something that I’ve learned in Buddhism. Our minds trick us. It is better to be here, now, in the moment. The goal of Zen Buddhism is not to find enlightenment while peeling the potatoes. The goal is to be present while you peel the potatoes. I stopped wearing a watch from that day on. I still use clocks so I’m not late, but the clock doesn’t tell me how to feel any more.
I catch myself all the time forgetting this secret. And then I remember and I pull myself back in. And somehow it seems to help others. I’m not caught up in the tornado of chaos with them. At least one person isn’t freaking out. And that sense of calm spreads, just like how it did with my Mom. Know that you, just by being mindful and present, can be a healing force. You can make the world better. It seems backwards – help yourself, and you help others, but it works.